What is Kant's transcendental freedom

Philosophy understandable

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Major works

  • 1781, 21787Critique of Pure Reason
  • 1785Foundation of the metaphysics of morals
  • 1788Critique of Practical Reason
  • 1790Critique of Judgement
  • 1797Metaphysics of Morals

Immanuel Kant's position on free will is complicated and difficult to grasp with the aid of current philosophical terminology. On the one hand, Kant is a determinist: "Every action, as an appearance [...] is itself an occurrence [...] which presupposes a different condition in which the cause is encountered [...]" (KrV A543 / B571). On the other hand, Kant believes that there is free will. And with this thesis he is closer to the libertarian camp than that of the soft determinists; because he is convinced that there are people in one demanding senses are free, since they have the ability "to produce something [...] independently of [the] natural causes [...], hence a series of occurrences all by itself to begin "(KrV A534 / B562). How does that fit together?

Practical and transcendental freedom

In the section "The Canon of Pure Reason" of the Transcendental Methodology at the end of the Critique of Pure Reason (KrV) Kant differentiates between practical and transcendental freedom. Practical freedom occurs when a person's decisions are not determined by "sensual impulses" but by "causes of movement which are only presented by reason" (KrV A802 / B830). Practical freedom is therefore very close to that of John Locke the ability, held in a central position, not to be determined by the immediate impulses, but by rational considerations that also take long-term goals and interests into account. "Because, not only that which stimulates, that is, what directly affects the senses, determines human will, but we have a capacity through ideas of what is itself on more distant It is kind of useful or harmful to overcome the impressions on our sensual desire; but these considerations of what is desirable in view of our entire condition, i.e. good and useful are based on reason. "(ibid.) Freedom in this sense - practical freedom - can be empirically proven and is compatible with causal determination (KrV A803 / B831). Transcendental freedom Kant, on the other hand, characterizes it as "an independence of this reason itself (with regard to its causality to begin a series of phenomena) from all determining causes of the sense world" (ibid.) Decisions are practically free, provided they are based on sensible considerations; they are transcendentally free when these reflections themselves are free (Baumann 142). At this point, Kant considers whether we are free not only in the practical but also in the transcendental sense to be a speculative question that is quite unimportant for practical philosophy. But that is not Kant's last word on this matter.

The Fundamentals of Kant's Theoretical Philosophy

In his theoretical philosophy, Kant tries to find an answer to the question of what one is a priori find out about the world (by pure thought without recourse to experience). David Hume had argued that by just thinking we could not know any substantial truths about the world at all. A prioriAccording to Hume, only trivial statements such as that all bachelors are unmarried can be proven to be true - statements the truth of which is evident from the meaning of the terms they contain. Kant is impressed by Hume's arguments; but they do not completely convince him. According to Kant, pure thinking only fails when it comes to objects that are fundamentally beyond our experience. About that Basic structures of the world of experience you can in his eyes, too a priori gain substantial knowledge. Why?

According to Kant, the world and the objects occurring in it must have certain properties, so that they can be objects of experience at all. Therefore, if something is an object of experience, we can a priori know that it has at least these properties. Kant speaks here of the Conditions of the possibility of experience and calls the philosophy that analyzes these conditions "transcendental philosophy". In his transcendental philosophy, Kant comes to the result, among other things, that (1) objects must be ordered spatially and temporally (whereby space and time have a certain structure) so that they can be objects of experience that it (2) there are substances in our experiential world, that is, things that remain the same over time with all the changes they undergo, and that (3) all changes in our experiential world have a cause. The world as we experience it is what Kant calls the "world of Apparitions" (Phenomena). From the world of appearances he distinguishes the world of Things in themselves (Noumena). Experiences come about in such a way that the world of things in itself evokes intuition in us and the mind then uses the intuition forms of space and time as well as the categories (to which, among other things, substance and Causality belong) structured in such a way that a world of tangible objects is created.

So much for the positive part of Kant's transcendental philosophy; in the negative part - the transcendental dialectic - he's trying to show that it's us impossible is a priori to come to substantive statements about objects that transcend any possible experience - God, the world as a whole, the self. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that when it comes to the world as a whole, there are a number of statements where we can "prove" both the statement itself and its opposite. (Kant speaks of the Antinomies of Pure Reason.) These statements include the statements "The world has a beginning in time and is also enclosed within boundaries according to space", "Every composite object consists of simple parts" and "The world has an absolutely necessary being "(first, second and fourth antinomy).

Is there transcendental freedom?

The third antinomy (KrV A444ff./B472ff.) Has to do directly with the possibility of transcendental freedom. The question here is whether there is only event causality in the world, according to which all events are caused by other events, or whether it is necessary to assume yet another kind of causality - causality through freedom, the ability to "simply start" a chain of events. Again, both answers can be "proven". If every event in the world were caused by other events, then the chain of causes would never be complete. But that is impossible. So there has to be a beginning (an immobile mover) that is the first cause of everything. And this is only possible if, in addition to event causality, there is also causality through freedom. However, the assumption that there is causality through freedom contradicts the law of causality; for if a chain of events begins by itself at some point, then there can obviously be no cause for that beginning itself. So with the help of theoretical reason we cannot decide whether the world has a first beginning or whether every event in the world is caused by other events. But Kant is also aiming at something else here. The idea of ​​a first beginning is obviously not contradicting itself - so neither is the idea of ​​causality through freedom. And that means that it is at least possible that we are free in the transcendental sense.

In the world of experience - the world of appearances - however, the law of causation applies. There is a general determinism here. In this world, therefore, causality is through freedom Not possible. In other words, we can be transcendentally free at most insofar as we are not only part of the world of appearances, but also Noumena - part of the world of things in themselves. Kant agrees the assumption of determinism with the assumption of freedom by assigning them to different worlds. Every acting subject, as an object of experience, is on the one hand part of the phenomenal world (it has, as Kant says, an "empirical character"; KrV, A539 / B567). As an appearance, it and its actions are entirely subject to the laws of nature; each of his actions is clearly determined by earlier conditions: "all actions of man in the appearance [are] determined from his empirical character and the other contributing causes according to the order of nature, and if we investigate all appearances of his will to the ground could, there would not be a single human action that we could not predict with certainty and recognize as necessary from its previous conditions "(KrV, A550 / B578). The acting subject is also "thing in itself" (it also has an "intelligible character"; KrV, A539 / B567), and as such freely produces actions (understood as noumena): "every action, regardless of the timing The relationship it stands in with other appearances is the immediate effect of the intelligible character "(KrV A553 / B581). But since 'things in themselves' are not temporal, the intelligible character of the subject itself cannot be determined by earlier temporal causes - in this sense man has the "ability [...], a series of occurrences of to begin yourself "(KrVA554 / B582) and is free in the transcendental sense. "So," writes Kant, "freedom and nature [...] would be encountered at the same time and without any conflict in the same actions, after comparing them with their intelligible or sensitive cause." (KrV A541 / B569)

Up to this point, one could say that Kant has shown that we can be transcendentally free insofar as we are also Noumena. But are we really transcendentally free? For Kant, the answer to this question arises less from theoretical than from practical reason, which is not concerned with what is, but with what ought to be. Practical reason tells us what is right and what is wrong, what we do and what we don't should. But ought presupposes ability. So we must also have the ability to do what to do. And it is precisely from this circumstance that our transcendental freedom follows. Because natural events only follow the law of cause and effect. Nothing happens in nature because it should happen, but only because it has to happen - due to the given causes. In other words, we can only do what we are supposed to do when we are transcendentally free. And that is precisely why we are free in the transcendental sense.


1. One of Kant's main theses is that metaphysics is only possible as an exploration of the conditions for the possibility of experience. But his reflections on transcendental freedom lead him to massive assumptions about what is going on in the world of the noumena. It's hard to see how this fits together.

2. Furthermore, these considerations raise the question of how appearances and noumenal occurrences relate to one another. How does the acting subject, insofar as it belongs to the world of appearances, relate to the subject who is part of the noumenal world? Or for actions: How do you imagine that an action is on the one hand completely determined by other events, but on the other hand? at the same time is an immediate effect of the intelligible character of the acting subject? Are you really talking about the same act here? Or are there two processes - one in the world of appearances and one in the world of things in themselves? And if so, how do these processes relate to one another?

3. The following problem also belongs in this context. According to Kant, the noumenal world is not structured in time. If an acting subject as a noumenon spontaneously allows a series of events to begin by itself, it must happen at a certain point in time. Free action is also action at a point in time and thus incompatible with the non-temporal character of a noumenal subject.

4. It is also unclear what consequences Kant's theory has: If all actions of a subject are effects of its "intelligible character", this means that all his actions are free (as also suggested by Kant's example in KrV, A554 / B582 ff.)? Is that really plausible? And how does this radical position fit with Kant's assertion that it is "completely hidden" from us how much of an action is "pure effect of freedom" and how much can be ascribed to "bare nature [...]" (KrV A551 / B579, Fn l)?

5. Further problems arise from the fact that Kant identifies the "intelligible character" of the subject with its reason (KrV, A 547 / B 575), and ascribes the causal effectiveness of the "intelligible character" to the normative power of reasons of reason - which ( certainly not intended by Kant) suggests that only reasonable actions could be free actions (ie actions that are determined not only by "empirical causes" but also by "reasons of reason"; cf. A 550 / B 578 ).


  • Kant's theory of freedom can be found in the
  • Critique of Pure Reason (KrV), A532 / B560-A558 / B586.
  • basis on the metaphysics of ethics (third section, pp. 105-130)
  • Critique of Practical Reason (KpV), A169-179.
  • Secondary literature
  • Peter Baumann, The autonomy of the person, Paderborn: mentis 2000.
  • Jonathan Bennett, Kant's Dialectic, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1974, chapter 10.
  • Charles Dunbar Broad, Kant. An Introduction, Chapter 3.
Last edit: 2005-03-07 23:00:00